The Devil had numerous names when I was growing up, including “Old Nick”. No-one seems to know exactly how the name arose, but one of the suggestions is that it came from the Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli. Many people would have believed Machiavelli fully deserved being called Old Nick; they believed that the attitudes and the policies that Machiavelli advocated were Satanic. In 1514 Machiavelli wrote a book called The Prince, it was a book concerned with getting power and holding onto power.
Machiavelli talked openly about the sort of things that rulers did anyway, but the truth made them very uncomfortable. His book includes the lines,
“when he seizes a state the new ruler ought to determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He should inflict them once for all, and not have to renew them every day, and in that way he will be able to set men’s minds at rest and win them over to him when he confers benefits. Whoever acts otherwise, either through timidity or bad advice, is always forced to have the knife ready in his hand and he can never depend on his subjects because they, suffering fresh and continuous violence, can never feel secure with regard to him. Violence should be inflicted once for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful”.
Machiavelli believed that to hold on to power, you must eliminate those who were troublesome, and that it was best for the people if this was done as swiftly and as efficiently as possible. Most rulers dealt with their opponents through conspiracy and intrigue, Machiavelli’s route was much more direct. In today’s Gospel reading, we are presented with a piece of Machiavellian politics.
Machiavelli’s advice about using violence once and for all against your enemies was intended to be a piece of advice to those who had risen to power through illegal means. It was based in the experience of a man called Agathocles, who, some eighteen centuries previously, had illegally become ruler of Sicily and who had maintained his rule by using ruthless measures to ensure stability.
When we look at the reading from Saint Mark Chapter 6, what do we see? Herod is disturbed at the reports he is hearing about Jesus. He is scared. People are saying that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. Herod’s cronies gather around him and bring him news of what is happening and you can almost feel the terror in Herod’s voice, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised,” he says in Verse 16.
Herod is not a Machiavellian ruler; he is weak and dithering and ineffectual. The ruthlessness in the story is on the part of Herodias. Herodias has gained her position of power by illegal means. She was Herod’s sister-in-law and has contracted a marriage to Herod that has been declared unlawful. Herodias knows that John the Baptist carries great sway with public opinion; she knows that he has capacity for causing her great trouble. Herodias is a political opportunist easily able to outwit Herod, and when he makes a drunken promise to her daughter, Herodias seizes her chance to eliminate John the Baptist.
We read the passage from Saint Mark Chapter 6 and there must be at least a few people who ask, “How on earth is there any good news in that story? What good news can there be in the brutal decapitation of John the Baptist?”
At the heart of any good news, there has to be truth, and one of the things this story does is to tell us the truth about human nature. Pursuing its own inclinations, human nature leads us to brutal killings. The story reflects the reality of the world in which we live: the world where ruthlessness triumphs, where cold calculation and indifference to the needs of others are recipes for success.
Jesus is fully conversant with the realities of the world. He does not send his disciples out as a group of well-meaning innocents. “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”, he says in Saint Matthew Chapter 10 Verse 16. Jesus wants his followers to use all their intellect and all the skills at their disposal. He wants them to be people of decency and honesty and integrity and kindness, but at the same time he wants them to be hard-headed realists who can hold their own in a hostile world.
We live in a very Machiavellian world. In politics, in industry, in business and in many other fields, people are very shrewd, very calculating, and very efficient at securing their own position and putting the opposition out of business. In a Machiavellian world, how does the church appear? Read the business pages, read the city pages, read the legal reports, watch the hard news programmes; does the stuff that the church talks about connect with the reality of the world? Ask what the church believes about the things Jesus teaches.
The church has retreated from the world; it has abandoned justice and peace in favour of a private and personal faith. Faith has been kept in one compartment and life in another. In the world of Herodias, there is nothing said. Niccolo Machiavelli advocated a ruthless policy in the pursuit of worldly power; Jesus’ followers are challenged to show an equal determination in following his ways.